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Moon struck

'Moon' book almost broke photographer's spirit

The photographer who compiled NASA's spectacular lunar photos talks about how they almost didn't happen, and how they changed his life.

By David Bowman

September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 2:18 p.m. EDT (1818 GMT)

(SALON) -- Michael Light has been consumed -- no, possessed -- by the moon for more than four years. Light is a San Francisco landscape photographer drawn to the crystalline purity found in desert light. Five years ago, he was shooting aerial photographs of the American Southwest when he realized that the mesas and hoodoos resembled the surface of the moon. He then began camping out at the NASA archive in Houston, where 32,000 images of the moon are stored. He looked at each one, hunting for photos that transcended Life magazine-style shots of the American flag being planted in moon dust or an astronaut teeing off against a cratered background. Instead, he sought images that conveyed the sublimity of the moon's utterly alien landscape. The result, "Full Moon," is a beautiful book. But putting it together almost broke Light's spirit, driving him to despair, self-doubt ... and perhaps even lunacy.

When I was a kid, I assumed the moon would be colonized by now, but Stanley Kubrick got it wrong. Hilton hotels do not orbit the Earth. We haven't been to the moon since '72.

I was 6 when Neil [Armstrong] planted the flag. And I ran around with lunchboxes that had pictures of Buzz [Aldrin] and Neil on them. I drank Tang and thought it was cool. But by 1975 I was off riding bicycles, whatever. I was no longer interested in space until about five years ago, when I started checking out the NASA archives.

Do taxpayers own those pictures?

Yes. We do.

Did you have to pay rights?

No. No. This is a public archive. If you go and get the actual image number of a photograph, NASA will make a print for a nominal fee. But what you'll get is a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate. What I did was negotiate with NASA for about nine months to get access to their masters, which are one generation away from the originals. Nobody touches the originals. They're in frozen storage in the ground.

Were they taken with a regular camera?

A regular camera. A hand-held Hasselblad on the moon. After I got the masters off-site, I digitally scanned them. I didn't duplicate them as much as clone them. So they're extremely sharp. They're sharper than anything anyone has ever really seen. Of course the pictures themselves show immense sharpness because they depict a world without air, without atmosphere. What are the qualities of taking a photograph in a vacuum?

I'm not an optical scientist, but as a working photographer it means basically that the photos have intense, intense clarity.

The black-and-white photos are intense, but the color ones are washed out. You wouldn't want to shoot a color fashion spread on the moon.

The surface of the moon is just filled with very bright light. People often ask me, "Where are the stars?" And the answer is because the surrounding illumination is so bright, you have to close the aperture of the camera way down -- the stars can't been seen by the camera. Or by the human eye.

You have to retell the story about John Glenn and the first camera in space.

Here it is. But know that it's hard for us to put ourselves back into 1961, 1962. Doctors didn't even know if the body would survive in zero gravity. Would the heart continue beating? Would the blood continue to flow? The lack of knowledge was extreme. NASA's attitude toward astronauts with cameras was completely hostile -- "Listen, you're going to have enough on your mind just running this space capsule. No we're not going to let you take any pictures. It's totally irrelevant." John Glenn was getting ready --

You forgot a good part -- initially NASA didn't even want the capsule to have windows.

Exactly. No windows at all. The whole argument was "Chimp in a can" -- that was Chuck Yeager's great dismissal of the astronauts. Anyway, John Glenn just said, "To hell with this. I'm going to go down to Cocoa Beach." He went to a drugstore and bought himself a cheap 35-millimeter rangefinder camera, then had it modified so he could operate it with a spacesuit glove. He shot a couple of rolls of color negative film.

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